The near-century old history of Isuzu reveals its founding fathers as being pioneers in the Japanese motor industry. Forty years ago General Motors South African began local production of light commercial vehicles, an activity that has since grown from strength to strength in establishing the brand as one of the country’s major players.

Isuzu Delivers

Chapter 1 of a five-part history of GMSA’s 33-year association with Isuzu LCVs –

From Japan with LUV

Isuzu is a Japanese vehicle and engine manufacturing company headquartered in Tokyo with assembly and manufacturing plants in the Japanese city of Fujisawa as well as in the prefectures of Tochigi and Hokkaidō. In most of Africa and Asia, the company is mostly known for trucks of all sizes but this year marks the 33nd anniversary of Isuzu’s presence in South Africa, where the brand has long established itself as a leading player in the pick-up – both private and business – and commercial vehicle sectors of the local industry.

The company’s roots, however, stretch back almost a century, to 1916 in fact when the Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited (with capital amassed from its highly profitable business) and the Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company got together and formulated a plan to build motor vehicles, starting with the A Truck. Two years later, the Ishikawajima Automotive Works entered into a technical cooperation with Wolseley Motors Limited in England to produce under licence the Wolseley A9 and the first car rolled off the Fukagawa production line in 1922, in doing so becoming Japan’s first-ever locally-produced passenger car.

In 1923 the company “unofficially” began building the CP 5-ton truck for the Japanese government but production was interrupted in September when the Great Kanto Earthquake (magnitude 7,9) and fire completely destroyed the Fukagawa factory, including design paperwork. But rebuilding commenced immediately and, remarkably, in March the following year, the go-ahead was given to produce the first Japanese-built Wolseley CP truck, which then qualified as an official military vehicle by the Japanese government.

With a few years manufacturing experience behind it, in 1927 the company ended its agreement with Wolseley and began manufacturing the Sumida (named for the Sumidagawa River, Tokyo’s main river), which was designed locally and built from 100 per cent Japanese materials. It was offered in two wheelbases and with an A6 or A4 petrol engine that earned a reputation for being powerful and economical. (A Model M bus version survives to this day as part of Isuzu’s museum collection.) The same year, Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited set up the Ishikawa Automotive Works Company Limited as an independent operation.

In view of the growing demand for motor vehicles, the Japanese government promoted a domestic automobile industry, and following a meeting with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, it led to renaming the truck Isuzu, after the Isuzu River that flows past the Ise Grand Shrine in the Mie prefecture, the most sacred Shintō shrine in Japan. The word Isuzu translated into English means ‘fifty bells’. In 1933, Ishikawa Automotive Works merged with Dot Automobile Manufacturing Incorporated to establish a new company called Automobile Industries Company Limited with a capital of one million yen. This company established a diesel research committee in 1934 and poured its energies into the development of diesel engines, a technology that had not yet been commercially established even in the advanced nations of Europe and North America. In 1936 the company introduced the air-cooled 5,3-litre DA6 diesel engine, followed three years later by the DA4, which went on to serve as the foundation of all later generations of Isuzu diesel engines.

These were Japan’s first commercial diesel engines and marked a breakthrough in the history of diesel engine development. Automobile Industries was merged with two other companies into Tokyo Automobile Industries Company Limited in 1937 and in 1941 the Japanese government designated the company as the only one permitted to manufacture diesel-powered vehicles. The company was renamed Isuzu Motors Limited in 1949 and established itself as an industry leader in diesel engine technology.

Following the end of World War II there was a need to re-establish vehicle production to meet an increasing demand for transportation and during this period of activity, in 1950, Isuzu produced the DA80 – Japan’s first diesel V8 engine. In addition, the company created an advanced pre-combustion chamber process, which it had developed through hostilities into the post-war era to become the industry’s standard indirect-injection combustion chamber design, known for delivering high performance.

With the technical assistance of Britain’s Rootes Group, production of the Hillman Minx began in 1953, reaching 100 per cent local content by 1959. The arrangement lasted until 1965, two years after Isuzu had started production of its first in-house passenger car design, the Bellett, which heralded a number of Isuzu passenger cars in the years to come – Bellet GT, Florian, 117 Coupé, Gemini, Piazza and Aska – some of which boasted design work by Giorgetto Giugiaro, ItalDesign and Corrozeria Ghia as well as engineering input from Lotus. During the 1950s, Japan was recovering from a period of fuel shortage and the launch of a bonnet-type truck in 1959 had led to a surge in company sales thanks in the main to the excellent fuel economy of its DA640 diesel.

Isuzu developed Japan’s first diesel engine for passenger cars, the DL201, in 1961, and was presented with the 1961 Technological Award by the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 1964, a DL200 version was fitted in 1964 to the Elf, Japan’s first cab-over light-duty truck that dominated the sales charts for more than 20 years. The Elf was launched in South Africa in mid-1975.

In 1968 Isuzu produced its 400 000th post-war truck, and in 1970 the company’s annual domestic sales exceeded one million vehicles for the first time. Such was Isuzu’s performance that it attracted General Motors’ interest and in July 1971 an Affiliation Agreement between Isuzu and GM was concluded in which the American giant obtained 34,2 per cent of the Japanese company’s shares.

The alliance soon took positive effect. An Isuzu one-ton pick-up designed and tested in Japan and Arizona, USA was simultaneously launched in America and South Africa in 1972 as the Chevrolet LUV (Light Utility Vehicle). The local version was powered by a 1,6-litre o-h-v petrol engine developing  65 kW mated with a four-speed gearbox. Its payload was 1 250 kg and the launch price was R1 725. A CAR magazine road test described an early imported unit as “neat but not particularly beautiful, yet it is practical and good value for money”. The LUV was soon to be assembled at GMSA’s Kempston Road plant and it consistently placed in the top 10 of best-selling light commercials.

Next: From LUV to KB – the star is born

Compiled and written by Mike Monk